Wednesday, January 21, 2009

About the Whole Jane Addams Lesbian Thing

What's next, saying these two were just friends?

As Michael Abernethy notes when mentioning Addams' recent induction into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame: "That Addams was a lesbian is a matter of speculation, as Addams wasn't gracious enough to leave an entry in her diaries that said 'I'm a big ole lesbian.'" Still, I can't believe that in the year 2009 grown men and women continue to debate whether she was gay.

Let me tell you a story about Jane Addams. When I was in fifth grade, my history class learned about child labor legislation and settlement houses and female involvement in social and political activism and all of that. Jane Addams was a big part of the unit. At the time I was an oblivious kid who'd yet to pick up on the fact that my aunt and her female roommate were more than roommates, but after reading a few paragraphs about Addams my gaydar started going off like Fannie Flagg -- "Match Game" era Fannie Flagg, the queerest of them all -- had entered the room.

The people who think Addams wasn't gay, the ones who can somehow keep a straight face while trying to sell us that "romantic friendship" line, they'll say that a ping (or twelve) on the gaydar is meaningless. Sometimes they'd even be right. But aren't they also being kind of deliberately obtuse?

The fifth-grade teacher who taught me about Jane Addams was a mild-mannered man in his mid-thirties who had never been married to a woman, professed not to have a girlfriend, but wore a wedding band anyway. He shared a house with, and routinely traveled with, his long-term male roommate. What would the historians who are reluctant to concede that Addams was likely gay (after all, they've never seen Paris Hilton-style video footage of her having sex with Mary Rozet Smith) make of my teacher and his "roommate," a man who was still in the picture years later when a friend's sibling took the same class and had the same teacher. Would they try to act like the two men were just very close pals, or would they do a collective spit-take and shout "Bitch, please!" if asked to believe they weren't a couple? I'm not a historian myself, but you can mark me down in the "Bitch, please!" camp when it comes to both Addams and my teacher.

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